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SOLID-ARITY: Feminist strength lies in its diversity
Before joining Nazra for Feminist Studies in March 2013, I had theoretical or virtual ideas around the principle of solidarity. They revolved around standing by friends and loved ones in the face of their enemies, or those they are at conflict with, even if they were wrong or at fault. Living in a country that relies heavily on its numerous witty proverbs, it probably seeped into my sub-consciousness via a specific proverb (altered here for feminist purposes): ‘My mother and I against my cousin, and my cousin and I against the stranger’. At times I felt that there something was morally wrong with this idea, and at times I have refused to act in accordance to it, which generally resulted in friends and loved ones being cross with me, or accusing me of being too idealistic. My heart and mind have always battled with this conundrum.
This lifelong conundrum was resolved when I joined the organisation Nazra. Nazra is a group that works for the sustainability of the feminist movement in Egypt and the Middle East and North African region. Nazra operates within an extremely complicated context riddled with frequent socio-political changes, in a heightened patriarchal society. Whether it is through Nazra’s work with women human rights defenders, survivors of crimes of sexual violence, increasing the political participation of women, encouraging artistic initiatives in order to mainstream feminist principles and ideologies, or working closely with emerging feminist initiatives in numerous governorates outside Cairo (the capital of Egypt), there was always a clear and solid ground on which solidarity could be practiced.
One of my revelations was that solidarity is not an idle prerequisite for being a feminist, and not something that is felt innately, within the heart. Rather it is both a decision and practice taken in every process the feminist movement engages with. Solidarity stems from a feminist consciousness that is not static, but which grows and matures. For Nazra, this consciousness is pivoted upon humility in every position taken towards our work to ensure a safe and just public space for women in Egypt. Within the rich and diverse feminist movement in Egypt, and the overwhelming level of violence committed against women within the public sphere (particularly after the January 25th Revolution) and the increase in mobilization on feminist struggles and issues, the manifestation of solidarity became more difficult ̶ yet more crucial.
Standing in solidarity with survivors of crimes of sexual violence in the public sphere is a very delicate process. It is sometimes confused with screaming one’s lungs out and asserting that this crime happened to this woman. However, ensuring survivors’ privacy and autonomy is instrumental in enabling women subjected to these crimes to become survivors. We cannot prioritise the overall cause of highlighting the issue of violence against women, when this could result in disastrous and life-threatening consequences of the identities of survivors were to be revealed. Sadly, Egypt remains an extremely patriarchal society that places a societal stigma and collectively blames them for crimes committed against them. Solidarity in this case means respect for survivors’ choices, even if we disagree with them. It is important for survivors to reclaim power over their bodies and decisions. This is instrumental in their healing process, given that the crimes against them robbed them of autonomy.
Another revelation is that solidarity is not conditional. In other words, the manifestation of solidarity does not necessitate being in agreement with all the actions, decisions, beliefs or even political affiliations of other women and feminists who are working towards a common cause. In fact, solidarity is a key value among feminists and women who employ different tactics to achieve their aims, where there is a minimal set of values they share. This is one of the main values and stances that Nazra relies on, particularly in its work with women politicians of different ideologies, or in its work promoting women’s appointment to decision-making positions. The minimum set of values here is a shared belief in the mainstreaming of a gender perspective that is not prejudicial to women. For instance, we do not work with individuals or organisations who believe female genital mutilation should be conducted, or that violence against women is caused by women’s actions, or those who expose the identity of survivors of crimes of sexual violence.
As for the work conducted through cross-regional networks, and in particular networks of women human rights defenders, solidarity is manifested through respecting the different contexts of different countries, and through participating in joint calls for actions in local, regional and international multilateral fora, to call for the alleviation of injustice or for the halt of violations conducted. Simultaneously, we refuse solidarity with those who work against the sustainability of the feminist movement. Solidarity is a global multi-lingual movement that brings together voices which are geographically separate, and which crosses boundaries and territories resulting in the orchestration of a spiritual process (in my opinion) where love, respect, honesty and integrity remain intact.
I feel blessed: Nazra has taught me that strength lies in diversity, and that different feminist voices and tactics are needed to sustain the movement and enable it to grow. I will humbly claim that the feminists, women, artists and survivors with whom we worked, and with whom I stood in solidarity, were left with a sense of real partnership and sisterhood.
Different voices coming together amplify calls for equality, and ensure the dynamic nature of a successful and multi-colored feminist movement. Diversity does not only exemplify the different layers of feminism. It also helps towards weaving these layers together to form a constant movement within a continuum of a feminist consciousness. This transforms into a sense of sisterhood, which focuses on reclaiming rights, freedoms and in developing emerging voices.
If I learnt anything from Nazra, I learnt that the genuine, humble and responsible practice of solidarity does indeed enable oil and water to mix.
Amal Elmohandes works as the Director of the Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRD) Program at Nazra for Feminist Studies, a program which provides legal, psychological and medical support to WHRDs in Egypt, in addition to focusing on knowledge production related to WHRDs. Amal has engaged in the issue of sexual violence in the Egyptian public sphere, due to it being one of the main issues that Nazra works on. She is also a member of the Emergency and Urgent Responses Committee of the Regional Coalition for Women Human Rights Defenders in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Amal obtained a Bachelor Degree in Arts from the American University in Cairo, where she majored in English and Comparative Literature, and a M.Phil. in Gender and Women's Studies from Trinity College Dublin.